The Limits of Principles

Tom Tomlinson

in Methods in Medical Ethics

Published in print July 2012 | ISBN: 9780195161243
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199950317 | DOI:
The Limits of Principles

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In this chapter I canvas the reasons commonly given for claiming that principles can’t be all there is to moral reasoning: there is no conclusive agreement on a single normative theory; there is insoluble conflict between principles; principles are inherently vague, requiring interpretative resources lying beyond the principles; principles provide only a façade of justification (the real work being done by intuition or a common morality); and principles leave out important features of morality. I point out that some of these are not effective criticisms of principles per se, but only of principles used in particular ways. Using the work of Peter Singer and Tristram Engelhardt, I then illustrate that some of these weaknesses are not merely theoretical, but infect the work of ethicists who rely on a principle-driven deductive system.

Keywords: bioethics; medical ethics; moral reasoning; moral judgment; moral principles; deductive reasoning; singer; engelhardt

Chapter.  7613 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy

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